Feb. 10, 2015

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Students, UUPers speak up for SUNY opportunity programs

uupdate 2-10-15

Hundreds of students and staff from two of SUNY's cash-starved academic opportunity programs recounted heartfelt success stories Feb. 10 in a day of advocacy that sent one unified message to lawmakers: Do the right thing for New York's next generation of achievers.

Students and their counselors and faculty in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and Educational Opportunity Centers (EOC) from all over the state rose before dawn to board buses for Albany. The day afforded the students a chance to put into practice all that they have been learning as a select group of high-needs young adults deemed likely to succeed in college: advocating for themselves, working as a team and giving back to others the same hard-earned help that they received.

“EOP is the reason I am in college, so to fight for this is really important,” said Aykayla Watson of Brooklyn, who is in her first year at SUNY Buffalo State. She and her friends in the program got on a bus at 3:30 a.m., in what for many of them was a first experience in public advocacy.

UUP President Fred Kowal, above, thanked the students and UUP members who accompanied them, as he explained that the two programs face dire cuts in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed Executive Budget. EOP would lose $1.3 million, even as it is turning away eligible high-needs students by the tens of thousands each year. EOC faces a cut of nearly $1 million— money that would support the program's technology labs and technology training.

“Tell your story, clearly and completely,” Kowal told the students as they prepared to head for meetings with lawmakers. “They want to hear from you. The Legislature wants to fund EOP and EOC. Our problem is the governor, not the Legislature.”

The gathering got a rousing sendoff from newly elected Assembly member Latoya Joyner, a Bronx Democrat from the 77th Assembly District who was an EOP student at SUNY Stony Brook. She pledged to use her own strong success story in working with her colleagues to restore cuts to the opportunity programs and fully fund them so that they can serve more qualified students.

“I am 100 percent behind EOP,” Joyner told the cheering crowd. “If it was not for EOP, I would not be standing here today. We need to continue advocating for EOP.”

EOP provides specialized academic support to students with severe financial need but the potential to succeed in college. Students receive mentoring, special financial aid and book money and intensive preparation for college the summer before they enter, along with a close mentoring relationship from EOP counselors. Educational Opportunity Centers offer tuition-free training for income-eligible students in fields such as health care and technology – an excellent option for students who are often slightly older than college age and are seeking a path into a career without a traditional college education.

The students hiked the stairwells in the Legislative Office Building for hours, and they told their stories – of their single parents who dreamed that they would have a better life than their mothers and fathers had; of being the first in their family to attend college; and of finding an academic home in the EOP program and aspirations of a life beyond college. The goal of EOP, they explained over and over again, was not just to see them graduate college, but to aim for graduate school – an idea that the program instills in them in the first weeks of college.

“We really are looking to go forward – not just a master's, not just a Ph.D., but to really build a life,” explained Deyja Fredericks of SUNY Oswego in a meeting in the office of Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat and leader of the Senate Democratic Conference.

And the students also found the day an exercise in empowerment. A group of SUNY Albany students were thrilled when they requested and got an “off the floor” meeting with Republican Assembly Member Kieran Michael Lalor of Hopewell Junction in the lower Hudson Valley. Lalor listened closely during the informal meeting in the hallway outside of the Assembly chambers, and reflected the common reaction of his legislative colleagues as he pledged his support for increased funding to the opportunity programs.

Afterward, the students reflected on the experience with pride and delight that they had held Lalor's attention so closely.

“It's actually pretty nerve-wracking, because you don't want them to shut you down,” said Janessa Brown, who acknowledged that she had been nervous about speaking but very glad that she overcame her hesitancy.

She credited the six-week summer program that UAlbany required of entering EOP students for giving her the confidence to speak up for herself. UUP has made an expansion of EOP summer orientation programs for entering students one of its proposals in the union's legislative initiative. Although many of the programs last for weeks, at some campuses, they are only a few days long—a reflection of tight budgets and staffing.

“The summer program mentally prepared us and physically prepared us with public speaking, and generally with preparation for life,” Brown said.

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